Beyond Chichen Itza – Mexico’s 5 best Mayan treats

By Emma Chaplin of Exsus luxury holidays

Named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, Mexico’s Chichen Itza is one of those places that simply must be seen. But with fame comes crowds – away from the busloads of tourists, Mexico offers so many more Mayan spectacles for those looking for a little culture, a magical setting for a sundowner and somewhere to remember for the rest of your life. We asked Emma Chaplin, one of the Mexico boffins at Exsus, for her pick of Mexico’s top five Mayan must-sees beyond Chichen Itza.

1. Relax: Lazy River, Sian Ka’an

A short distance from the little-visited Muyil ruins is the Chunyaxché lagoon in Sian Ka’an. Mayan traders used the canalised rivers that meet the lagoon for trading, but these days they’re used purely for fun – after a boat ride through the beautiful mangroves, pop on a life jacket and bob down through the gentle current in crystal clear waters. With inquisitive fish below and exotic birds above, this peaceful ride is the only way to travel.

Where to stay: Surrounded by white sand beaches and lush tropical jungle, the stylish Be Tulum, near Sian Ka’an, is perfect for nature-lovers.

2. Dining out

Head to Alux restaurant, Playa del Carmen – it’s set in the depths of a naturally formed cavern with romantic candlelit tables interspersed amongst the stalagmites and stalactites. It’s spellbinding with delicate cuisine to match the awesome surroundings. According to Mayan legend, the ‘Alux’ is a mythical elf-like creature, believed to appear only at night, that guards property and personal belongings.

Where to stay: Soak up the Caribbean sun at the luxurious Esencia, a 29-room boutique hotel bang on the sugar-soft beach.

3. Discover: Uxmal

This ancient Mayan city is considered by many to be the finest example of classic Mayan architecture and, along with Chichen Itza and Guatemala’s Tikal, it is considered one of the most important Mayan sites. Expect elaborate carvings, from two-headed snakes to turtles, and feathered serpents to Chaac, the rain god. Don’t miss the 110 ft long ball court – using their stomach and hips, competitors would attempt to bounce a rubber ball through a hoop in a game that could last days. Sacrifice was the brutal conclusion, though it is still not known whether the loser or victor would meet this fate.

Where to stay: Spend a few nights of luxury at Hacienda Temozon, perfectly located close to Uxmal.

4. Shop: Artisan Workshops, Izamal

The Haciendas Foundation supports Mayan communities in establishing fair trade cooperatives that create and sell traditional Mayan artwork. Cultural self expression is kept alive and well, with the artisans continuing to use only the traditional pre-Hispanic techniques and materials that have been used in the area for more than 1,000 years. Avoid the tourist tat (the Mexican wrestling masks and oversized sombreros) and stock up on skilfully crafted souvenirs on a visit to the thriving handicraft workshops of Izamal.

Where to stay: Our luxurious hacienda-hopping itinerary takes in Izamal’s colourful markets.

5. Explore: Loltun Caves, Merida

Loltun means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Maya language, and the caves were of huge significance to the ancient Mayans. The huge underground network is the largest in the Yucatan Peninsula with beams of light from above illuminating jaw-dropping rock formations. Most intriguing are the murals, painted by ancient peoples who used the underground lair as a source of water, a ceremonial space and an escape from the Conquistadors. Eagle-eyed visitors will be able to spot animals, faces and hands painted on the cave walls. It’s just one hour away from Merida itself.

Where to stay: Spend a few nights in Hacienda San Jose, where Merida’s colonial charm meets contemporary luxury.

Exsus can tailor-make virtually any voyage into the wonderful world of the Mayans – with spectacular mountains, vibrant colonial cities and, of course, a picture-perfect Caribbean coast, there is so much to discover in Mexico. Take a look at our itineraries and have a chat with me or one of our other Mexico experts for first-hand advice and tips.

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